“There must be music. I want to dance!”
That was Devi Pillai’s only request for the 100th birthday bash her family threw for her last weekend. The ardent Elvis Presley fan was not up to doing the twist, but she still wanted to dance and rejoice at turning 100 with the exuberance that she had lived her life.
“I am excited,” says Devi, a radiant smile lighting up her face. “I am happy because I have made it to 100. I don’t wish for anything now but to enjoy my life until the end.”
Family and friends – some who came from as far as Britain and New Zealand – gathered for the happy occasion to pay tribute to the family matriarch, describing her as “stoic”, “a pillar of strength” and “fearless”.
“My grandma grew up in conservative times but she did not let gender or even an early marriage hinder her from achieving success as a mother or a nurse. She is an inspiration to me. She is our ‘warm fuzzy’ … she has always been the kind of grandma every child needs. I am very lucky,” says grandson, Ramesh Ganesan, 51.
Nothing short of extraordinary
Devi has lived a remarkable life. She was born in Kelantan on Feb 19, 1919, to an Indian father and a Thai-Chinese mother. Devi was separated from her mother as a toddler when her father took her back to India where she lived until she was 10.
Although she was well-loved and cared for by her paternal grandmother, growing up without her mother was hard for Devi.
“I had a difficult start as I thought that I had lost my mother. But I was loved. My grandmother loved me very much and I spent a lot of time with her until I returned to Malaysia when I was 10,” recalls Devi who now lives with her daughter-in-law in Ayer Keroh, Melaka.
But when she was working as a nurse in Terengganu, Devi was reunited with her mother, whom she learnt had never given up hope of finding her.
“Her mother was afraid of going to a foreign land, especially since she didn’t speak the language, which is why she decided to stay behind in Malaya.
“My grandmother’s father, however, decided to settle down in India. He remarried and had another six children,” shares Devi’s granddaughter, Sherena Nair, 41.
Ahead of her time
Devi’s grandmother and father were determined that she get an education and make a career for herself, even though that was not the norm for girls in the 1930s. They wanted to ensure that no matter what curve balls life threw at Devi, she’d be independent and able to look after herself.
So, when she was 15, Devi travelled to Singapore to learn midwifery and later, nursing. “My nursing training is one of the highlights of my life. Not many women in my time had a career,” shares Devi.
It was during her nursing training at the Kandang Kerbau Hospital (now KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital) in Singapore that Devi met and went out on a date with Dr Benjamin Sheares, Singapore’s second President.
“Apparently, she was so timid and shy that she hardly spoke during their date … there was no second date after that,” relates granddaughter, Roshini Ganesan, 52, sharing one of Devi’s stories.
When she was 17, Devi married a man who was almost 40 years her senior. They had a child but soon after, her late husband (whom she described as a “kind man”) passed away. She remarried when she was 19 and had two more children.
Devi has five grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. She was a devoted mother but also fiercely committed to serving as a nurse. Stationed in Terengganu, she travelled all over the state, looking after mainly poor women and under-privileged children in villages.
“She travelled on foot, trishaws and by boat into the interiors to help women and children. She worked very hard to balance her work and her family life, and took it all in her stride,” shares Sherena.
Finding that work-life balance is necessary, says Devi. “You just have to do it. It is your duty. Work was important to me to earn a living but it was also my responsibility to care for my children,” she shares simply.
Her dedication to her profession won her the respect of not only her peers but also the state government. As a senior nurse, Devi assisted in the birth of Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin, the current Sultan and former Yang diPertuan Agung, 57 years ago.
“I was one of the most experienced nurses in the state when the then Sultanah went into labour and so I was asked to assist another senior nurse in the delivery.
“The delivery took place in the palace and I was given a small room to stay as I had to be there for a few days after the delivery, to care for the Sultanah and her baby.
“I felt very honoured, of course. We left the palace once she was well enough,” shares Devi who was awarded the title Ahli Mangku Negara (AMN), for her services to the royal family.
When her eldest daughter got married, Devi invited the Terengganu Sultan and Sultanah, and they kindly graced the wedding. Like her grandmother and father, Devi was determined to give her three children a solid education and future.
“Whatever money and resources that she had was dedicated to making sure that her three children were well educated. Her other legacy was her commitment to caring for the less fortunate. She fostered a young blind boy when she was younger and all her children have also followed in her footsteps and fostered children,” says Roshini.
Making the most of time
For the past 10 years, Devi has been living with dementia. She has good days when she is lucid and energetic, and not so good ones where she gets confused and tired. A year-and-a-half ago, she suffered a fall which required her to undergo hip surgery and had left her a little unsteady.
But the ever-determined centenarian has never let her circumstances dampen her spirits, her enthusiasm or her love for dance – which sometimes leave her children and grandchildren a little anxious for her wellbeing.
“I’ve learnt many things from her,” shares another granddaughter, Datin Seri Kavitha Saravanan, 48. “She is a strong, resilient and independent woman who is also caring and compassionate. She has shown us that despite the struggles, everyone can succeed. All that is needed is the right attitude.
“She also taught us to always hold our head up, even when things are weighing us down. These are lessons that I have passed on to my children.”
Unfortunately, Devi didn’t get to dance at her party. She was so excited in the run-up to her big event that she barely got a wink of sleep the night before the party.
“She danced at home, though. And at the party, she was laughing and clapping as she listened to the speeches. When her daughter was delivering her speech, she actually asked her to ‘speak louder’,” recounts Roshini.
Secrets to a long life? Devi says that she has none, although she was always careful with her diet and made sure to exercise – she still exercises her legs every morning!
“I don’t have any secrets to a long life. It’s God’s gift. I have led a good life and I don’t fear anything,” declares Devi, with a broad smile, displaying her indomitable spirit and zest for life.
Her advice to young girls? “Don’t be naughty and listen to your parents,” she says.